I read with concern and sadness about some American Jews who want to make aliyah, and whose Orthodox conversions, performed years ago in the U.S., are now being questioned by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and its Ministry of Interior (“New Convert Snub By Israel Fuels Fresh Anger Here,” Feb. 8).
Concern and sadness, yes. Shock, no. Rabbi Seth Farber of ITIM, an advocacy organization based in Jerusalem that helps people with personal-status issues in Israel, was quoted in the article saying this is just the “latest round of disenfranchisement.”
Of course, this is true. In the 1980s, the interior ministry denied Jews who had converted under the auspices of the Reform movement identity cards designating them as “Jewish.” In 1989, the Israeli Supreme Court mandated that Reform and Conservative conversions had to be recognized by the ministry. This left a loophole, because it was assumed the Orthodox conversions would not be questioned. But now they are being questioned.
For Jews by choice whose conversions were carried out through the progressive movements, and now for some others who have converted under Orthodox auspices, Jewish life in Israel continues to be under the control of the Chief Rabbinate, even for those manage to make aliyah. Though they are Jews living in Israel, they cannot be married to other Jews in Israel or buried as Jews there, and, if they are women, neither can their children be, because the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize their conversions.
These issues hit me viscerally, because while I have devoted my life to Judaism, I studied for conversion with a Reform rabbi, and was examined and taken to the mikveh by a Reform beit din. That is how I became a Jew.
Israel doesn’t want me.
One of the messages that American Jews receive relentlessly is that we need to support Israel. There is much hand wringing over the perceived lessening of American Jewish connection to Israel among teens and young adults, and even among rabbinical students. I believe this lessening of connection is in part due to a growing number of American Jews who cannot fully live as Jews in Israel because their status as Jews is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, and in some cases not by the interior ministry.
I am deeply conflicted about my own connection to Israel for this reason. I do feel connected, and I do support Israel’s right to exist safely. Some Israeli policies make me cringe and some criticisms of Israel make me bristle. But it is difficult for me to think of the State of Israel as my homeland, and that hurts.
People I like and respect have said to me, “You don’t have any interest in making aliyah. Why do you care if you’re considered Jewish in Israel?” To me, this is an astonishing argument. It’s like saying, “This country club doesn’t want to give you membership, but that’s OK, because you don’t want to be a member anyway. It’s really important, though, that you support the country club, defend it, and send it your money.” As an American Jew, there is both explicit and implicit pressure to support Israel, because it is the homeland of all Jews. Therefore, as a Jew, it’s supposed to be my homeland too. And yet, here we are.
As a rabbi, I consider it part of my responsibility to teach my congregants that not everyone’s Judaism is universally recognized. This applies to conversion students, adopted children whose families are having them converted, children of non-Jewish others, and children of mothers who converted to Judaism. There are a lot of these people in my congregation.
I emphasize to them that they are, in fact, Jewish, but that there are those who will not recognize them as such for ritual and life-cycle purposes. “I’m in the same situation you are,” I tell them.
These conversations are painful and difficult, but it would be worse for them to, for example, make aliyah, meet someone and decide to marry, and be told at that point that the Chief Rabbinate doesn’t consider them Jewish and they need to convert. That surprise can be devastating. I want my congregants, and my daughters, with whom I am having the same conversation, to be prepared. Then I also need to find a way to help them feel connected to the Land of Israel, even though Israel doesn’t seem to want them. Being Jewish isn’t supposed to be easy, but does it have to be hard like this?
It is crucial that American Jews of all denominations join to support religious pluralism in Israel, and in the United States as well. We need to find ways to respect and recognize each other’s conversions and life-cycle rituals. There are not so many of us that we can afford to be divided, and if Israel continues to disenfranchise American Jews, she cannot expect their support to continue indefinitely.
Rabbi Heidi Hoover leads Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek in Brooklyn.